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The term dialect (from the Greek Language word dialektos, Διάλεκτος) is used in two distinct ways, even by linguists. One usage refers to a variety of a language that is characteristic of a particular group of the language's speakers.[1] The term is applied most often to regional speech patterns, but a dialect may also be defined by other factors, such as social class.[2] A dialect that is associated with a particular social class can be termed a sociolect; a regional dialect may be termed a regiolect or topolect. The other usage refers to a language socially subordinate to a regional or national standard language, often historically cognate to the standard, but not a variety of it or in any other sense derived from it. This more precise usage enables distinguishing between varieties of a language, such as the French spoken in Nice, France, and local languages distinct from the superordinate language, e.g. Nissart, the traditional native Romance language of Nice, known in French as Niçard.

A dialect is distinguished by its vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation (phonology, including prosody). Where a distinction can be made only in terms of pronunciation, the term accent is appropriate, not dialect. Other speech varieties include: standard languages, which are standardized for public performance (for example, a written standard); jargons, which are characterized by differences in lexicon (vocabulary); slang; patois; pidgins or argots.

The particular speech patterns used by an individual are termed an idiolect.


Standard, semi-standard and non-standard dialect

A standard dialect (also known as a standardized dialect or "standard language") is a dialect that is supported by institutions. Such institutional support may include government recognition or designation; presentation as being the "correct" form of a language in schools; published grammars, dictionaries, and textbooks that set forth a "correct" spoken and written form; and an extensive formal literature that employs that dialect (prose, poetry, non-fiction, etc.). There may be multiple standard dialects associated with a single language. For example, Standard American English, Standard Indian English, Standard Australian English, and Standard Philippine English may all be said to be standard dialects of the English language.

A semi-standard dialect sometimes occurs in micronations such as Sealand or Forvik. A good example of such is that of the "Forvikian American Australian Indian English" dialect, which arose from Englishmen travelling from America, to Australia, then to India, finally to arrive and settle in Forvik. Another example is "Sealandish German Cornish Russian Bermuda English", which arose from English settlers sequentially moving to different geographical locations; finally arriving in Sealand. Few books and publications actually exist but generally the 'unofficial' governments of these micro-nations accept the dialects and verbally set their own standards. Both may be said to be semi-standard dialects of the English language.

A nonstandard dialect, like a standard dialect, has a complete vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, but is not the beneficiary of institutional support. An example of a nonstandard English dialect is Southern English. The Dialect Test was designed by Joseph Wright to compare different English dialects with each other.

Sometimes in stories authors distinguish characters through their dialect.

"Dialect" or "language"

There are no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects, although a number of rough measures exist, which sometimes render contradictory results. The exact distinction is therefore a subjective one, dependent on the user's frame of reference.

Language varieties are often called dialects rather than languages:

  • because they have no standard or codified form,
  • because the speakers of the given language do not have a state of their own,
  • because they are rarely or never used in writing,
  • or because they lack prestige with respect to some other, often standardised, variety.

The term idiom is used by some linguists instead of language or dialect when there is no need to commit oneself to any decision on the status with respect to this distinction.[citation needed]

Anthropological linguists define dialect as the specific form of a language used by a speech community. In other words, the difference between language and dialect is the difference between the abstract or general and the concrete and particular. From this perspective, no one speaks a "language," everyone speaks a dialect of a language. Those who identify a particular dialect as the "standard" or "proper" version of a language are in fact using these terms to express a social distinction.

Often, the standard language is close to the sociolect of the elite class.

In groups where prestige standards play less important roles, "dialect" may simply be used to refer to subtle regional variations in linguistic practices that are considered mutually intelligible, playing an important role to place strangers, carrying the message of where a stranger originates (which quarter or district in a town, which village in a rural setting, or which province of a country); thus there are many apparent "dialects" of Slavey, for example, by which the linguist simply means that there are many subtle variations among speakers who largely understand each other and recognize that they are each speaking "the same way" in a general sense.

Modern-day linguists know that the status of language is not solely determined by linguistic criteria, but it is also the result of a historical and political development. Romansh came to be a written language, and therefore it is recognized as a language, even though it is very close to the Lombardic alpine dialects. An opposite example is the case of Chinese, whose variations such as Mandarin and Cantonese are often considered dialects and not languages, despite their mutual unintelligibility, because the word for them in mandarin, "Fangyan", was mistranslated as dialect because it meant regional speech.

See also Mesoamerican languages#Language vs. Dialect


"A language is a dialect with an army and navy"

The Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich published the expression, "A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot" ("אַ שפראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמײ און פֿלאָט ", "A language is a dialect with an army and navy"; in Yivo-bleter.

Political factors

Modern Nationalism, as developed especially since the French Revolution, has made the distinction between "language" and "dialect" an issue of great political importance. A group speaking a separate "language" is often seen as having a greater claim to being a separate "people", and thus to be more deserving of its own independent state, while a group speaking a "dialect" tends to be seen not as "a people" in its own right, but as a sub-group, part of a bigger people, which must content itself with regional autonomy.[citation needed] The distinction between language and dialect is thus inevitably made at least as much on a political basis as on a linguistic one, and can lead to great political controversy, or even armed conflict.

The classification of speech varieties as dialects or languages and their relationship to other varieties of speech can thus be controversial and the verdicts inconsistent. English and Serbo-Croatian illustrate the point. English and Serbo-Croatian each have two major variants (British and American English, and Serbian and Croatian, respectively), along with numerous lesser varieties. For political reasons, analyzing these varieties as "languages" or "dialects" yields inconsistent results: British and American English, spoken by close political and military allies, are almost universally regarded as dialects of a single language, whereas the standard languages of Serbia and Croatia, which differ from each other to a similar extent as the dialects of English, are being treated by many linguists from the region as distinct languages, largely because the two countries oscillate from being brotherly to being bitter enemies. (The Serbo-Croatian language article deals with this topic much more fully.)

Similar examples abound. Macedonian, although mutually intelligible with Bulgarian, certain dialects of Serbian and to a lesser extent the rest of the South Slavic dialect continuum is considered by Bulgarian linguists to be a Bulgarian dialect, in contrast with the contemporary international view, and the view in the Republic of Macedonia which regards it as a language in its own right. Nevertheless, before the establishment of a literary standard of Macedonian in 1944, in most sources in and out of Bulgaria before the Second World War, the southern Slavonic dialect continuum covering the area of today's Republic of Macedonia were referred to as Bulgarian dialects.

In the 19th Century, the Tsarist Government of Russia claimed that Ukrainian was merely a dialect of Russian and not a language in its own right. Since Soviet times, when Ukrainians were recognised as a separate nationality deserving of its own Soviet Republic, such linguistic-political claims had disappeared from circulation.

In Lebanon, the right-wing Guardians of the Cedars, a fiercely nationalistic (mainly Christian) political party which opposes the country's ties to the Arab world, is agitating for "Lebanese" to be recognized as a distinct language from Arabic and not merely a dialect, and has even advocated replacing the Arabic alphabet with a revival of the ancient Phoenician alphabet - which missed a number of characters to write typical Arabic phonemes present in Lebanese, and lost by Phoenician (and Hebrew) in the second millennium BC.

This is, however, very much a minority position - in Lebanon itself as in the Arab World as a whole. The Varieties of Arabic are considerably different from each other - especially those spoken in North Africa (Maghreb) from those of the Middle East (the Mashriq in the broad definition including Egypt and Sudan) - and had there been the political will in the different Arab countries to cut themselves off from each other, the case could have been made to declare these varieties as separate languages. However, in adherence to the ideas of Arab Nationalism, the Arab countries prefer to give preference to the Literary Arabic which is common to all of them, conduct much of their political, cultural and religious life in it, and refrain from declaring each country's specific variety to be a separate language.

Interestingly, such moves may even appear at a local, rather than a federal level. The US state of Illinois declared "American" to be the state's official language in 1923,[3] although linguists and politicians throughout much of the rest of the country considered American simply to be a dialect.

There have been cases of a variety of speech being deliberately reclassified to serve political purposes. One example is Moldovan. In 1996, the Moldovan parliament, citing fears of "Romanian expansionism," rejected a proposal from President Mircea Snegur to change the name of the language to Romanian, and in 2003 a Moldovan-Romanian dictionary was published, purporting to show that the two countries speak different languages. Linguists of the Romanian Academy reacted by declaring that all the Moldovan words were also Romanian words; while in Moldova, the head of the Academy of Sciences of Moldova, Ion Bărbuţă, described the dictionary as a politically motivated "absurdity".

In contrast, spoken languages of Han Chinese are usually referred to as dialects of one Chinese language, because the word "fangyan", which means regional speech, was mistranslated as dialect.. The article "Identification of the varieties of Chinese" has more details.

In the Philippines, the Commission on the Filipino Language declared all the indigenous languages in the Philippines as dialects[citation needed] despite the great differences between them, as well as the existence of significant bodies of literature in each of the major "dialects" and daily newspapers in some.

The significance of the political factors in any attempt at answering the question "what is a language?" is great enough to cast doubt on whether any strictly linguistic definition, without a socio-cultural approach, is possible. This is illustrated by the frequency with which the army-navy aphorism discussed in the preceding section is cited.

Historical linguistics

Many historical linguists view any speech form as a dialect of the older medium of communication from which it developed.[citation needed] This point of view sees the modern Romance languages as dialects of Latin, modern Greek as a dialect of Ancient Greek, Tok Pisin as a dialect of English, and Scandinavian languages as dialects of Old Norse. This paradigm is not entirely problem-free. It sees genetic relationships as paramount; the "dialects" of a "language" (which itself may be a "dialect" of a yet older tongue) may or may not be mutually intelligible. Moreover, a parent language may spawn several "dialects" which themselves subdivide any number of times, with some "branches" of the tree changing more rapidly than others. This can give rise to the situation in which two dialects (defined according to this paradigm) with a somewhat distant genetic relationship are mutually more readily comprehensible than more closely related dialects. In one opinion this pattern is clearly present among the modern Romance tongues, with Italian and Spanish having a high degree of mutual comprehensibility, which neither language shares with French, despite some claiming that both languages are genetically closer to French than to each other:[citation needed] In fact, French-Italian and French-Spanish relative mutual incomprehensibility is due to French having undergone more rapid and more pervasive phonological change than have Spanish and Italian, not to real or imagined distance in genetic relationship. In fact, Italian and French share many more root words in common that do not even appear in Spanish. For example, the Italian and French words for various foods, family members, and body parts are very similar to each other, yet most of those words are completely different in Spanish. Italian "avere" and "essere" as auxiliaries for forming compound tenses are used similarly to French "avoir" and "être", Spanish only retains "haber" and has done away with "ser" in forming compound tenses, which are no longer used in either Spanish or Portuguese. However, when it comes to pronunciation, some Italian sounds are familiar to Spanish speakers, and native speakers of Italian and Spanish may attain some limited degree of mutual comprehension using single words or short phrases.


One language, Interlingua, was developed so that the languages of Western civilization would act as its dialects.[4] Drawing from such concepts as the international scientific vocabulary and Standard Average European, linguists developed a theory that the modern Western languages were actually dialects of a hidden or latent language. Researchers at the International Auxiliary Language Association extracted words and affixes that they considered to be part of Interlingua's vocabulary.[5] In theory, speakers of the Western languages would understand written or spoken Interlingua immediately, without prior study, since their own languages were its dialects.[4] This has often turned out to be true, especially, but not solely, for speakers of the Romance languages and educated speakers of English. Interlingua has also been found to assist in the learning of other languages. In one study, Swedish high school students learning Interlingua were able to translate passages from Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian that students of those languages found too difficult to understand.[6] It should be noted, however, that the vocabulary of Interlingua extends beyond the Western language families.[5]

Concepts in dialectology

Concepts in dialectology include:

Mutual intelligibility

Some have attempted to distinguish dialects from languages by saying that dialects of the same language are understandable to each other. The untenable nature of blunt application of this criterion is demonstrated by the case of Italian and Spanish cited above. While some native speakers of the two may on occasion enjoy some limited mutual understanding, few people would want to classify Italian and Spanish as dialects of the same language in any sense other than historical. Spanish and Italian are similar, but phonology, syntax, morphology, and lexicon are sufficiently distinct that the two cannot be considered dialects of the same language.


Another problem occurs in the case of diglossia, used to describe a situation in which, in a given society, there are two closely-related languages, one of high prestige, which is generally used by the government and in formal texts, and one of low prestige, which is usually the spoken vernacular tongue. An example of this is Sanskrit, which was considered the proper way to speak in northern India, but only accessible by the upper class, and Prakrit which was the common (and informal or vernacular) speech at the time.

Varying degrees of diglossia are still common in many societies around the world.

Dialect continuum

A dialect continuum is a network of dialects in which geographically adjacent dialects are mutually comprehensible, but with comprehensibility steadily decreasing as distance between the dialects increases. An example is the Dutch-German dialect continuum, a vast network of dialects with two recognized literary standards. Although mutual intelligibility between standard Dutch and standard German is very limited, a chain of dialects connects them. Due to several centuries of influence by standard languages (especially in Northern Germany, where even today the original dialects struggle to survive) there are now many breaks in intelligibility between geographically adjacent dialects along the continuum, but in the past these breaks were virtually nonexistent.

The Romance languages—Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Occitan/Provençal, French, Sardinian, Romanian, Romansh, Friulan, other Italian, French, and Ibero-Romance dialects, and others—form another well-known continuum, with varying degrees of mutual intelligibility.

In both areas - the Germanic linguistic continuum, the Romance linguistic continuum - the relational notion of the term dialect is often vastly misunderstood, and today gives rise to considerable difficulties in implementation of European Union directives regarding support of minority languages. Perhaps this is no more evident than in Italy, where still today some of the population use their local language (dialetto 'dialect') as the primary means of communication at home and, to varying lesser extent, the workplace. Difficulties arise due to terminological confusion. The languages conventionally referred to as Italian dialects are Romance sister languages of Italian, not variants of Italian, which are commonly and properly called italiano regionale ('regional Italian'). The label Italian dialect as conventionally used is more geopolitical in aptness of meaning rather than linguistic: Bolognese and Neapolitan, for example, are termed Italian dialects, yet resemble each other less than do Italian and Spanish. Misunderstandings ensue if "Italian dialect" is taken to mean 'dialect of Italian' rather than 'minority language spoken on Italian soil', i.e. part of the network of the Romance linguistic continuum. The indigenous Romance language of Venice, for example, is cognate with Italian, but quite distinct from the national language in phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon, and in no way a derivative or a variety of the national language. Venetian can be said to be an Italian dialect both geographically and typologically, but it is not a dialect of Italian.


A diasystem refers to a single genetic language which has two or more standard forms. An example is Hindi-Urdu or Hindustani, which encompasses two main standard varieties, Urdu and Hindi. Another example is Norwegian, with Bokmål having developed closely with Danish and Swedish, and Nynorsk as a partly reconstructed language based on old dialects. Both are recognized as official languages in Norway.

In a formal sense, the diasystem of a set of dialects can be understood as the underlying language for which each dialect has a typical realisation (language of metaphonemes). An example can be taken with Occitan (a strongly dialectalized language of Southern France) where 'cavaL' ( < late Latin *caballu-, 'horse') is the diasystem form for the following realizations.

  • Languedocien dialect: [kaɞal], spelled 'caval' (v is pronounced as in Spanish and -L > -l, sometimes velar, used concurrently with French borrowed forms 'chival' or 'chivau');
  • Limousine dialect: [tʃavau], spelled 'chavau' (ca > cha and -L > -u regularly);
  • Provencal dialect: [kavau], spelled 'cavau' (-L > -u regularly, and used concurrently with French borrowed forms 'chival' or 'chivau');
  • Gascon dialect: [kawat], spelled 'cavath' (intervocalic v is w and final -L is -t, sometimes palatalized, and used concurrently with French borrowed forms 'chibau')
  • Auvergnat and Vivaro-alpine dialects: [tʃaval], spelled 'chaval' (same treatment of 'ca' cluster as in Limousine dialect)

This conceptual approach may be used in practical situations. For instance when such a diasystem is identified, it can be used so as to define the way these dialects are written in a common form that eases greatly written communication with the highest tolerance to the various spoken form. After such a unification, the dialects appear as mere 'accents' of the diasystem. 'Yes, people from region A pronounce [X] what we spell z, while in region B, they pronounce it [Y]'. It should be noted that the goals in this example are more sociopolitical in essence than scientifically linguistic. Linguistically, Occitan is a cover term for a large number of languages (reduced to a typology of five here for convenience) of varying relational proximity in terms of linguistic features, and the dialect continuum does not stop at the outer geolinguistic boundaries conventionally assigned to Occitan.


A pluricentric language has more than one standard version: English is an example of these languages. Portuguese is also an example of this. Although as of January 1, 2009, a standard orthography was agreed upon by all Portuguese-speaking countries, this has no effect on the phonological, morphosyntactic, or lexical features that distinguish varieties.

The Ausbausprache — Abstandsprache — Dachsprache framework

One analytical paradigm developed by linguists is known as the Ausbausprache - Abstandsprache - Dachsprache framework. It has proved popular among linguists in Continental Europe, but is not so well known in English-speaking countries, especially among people who are not trained linguists. Although only one of many possible paradigms, it has the advantage of being constructed by trained linguists for the particular purpose of analyzing and categorizing varieties of speech, and has the additional merit of replacing such loaded words as "language" and "dialect" with the German terms of Ausbausprache, Abstandsprache, and Dachsprache, words that are not (yet) loaded with political, cultural, or emotional connotations.

Examples from many languages

A useful set of examples of the difficulty of distinguishing languages from dialects may be found in the article cited above.

Selected list of articles on dialects

See also


  1. ^ Oxford English dictionary.
  2. ^ Merriam-Webster Online dictionary.
  3. ^ "American" as the Official Language of the United States.
  4. ^ a b Morris, Alice Vanderbilt, General report. New York: International Auxiliary Language Association, 1945.
  5. ^ a b Gode, Alexander, Interlingua-English Dictionary. New York: Storm Publishers, 1951.
  6. ^ Gopsill, F. P., International languages: A matter for Interlingua. Sheffield: British Interlingua Society, 1990.

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911


FIG. 10.

DIALECT (from Gr. &dXeKTos, conversation, manner of speaking, SeaMy€oOat, to converse), a particular or characteristic manner of speech, and hence any variety of a language. In its widest sense languages which are branches of a common or parent language may be said to be "dialects" of that language; thus Attic, Ionic, Aeolic and Doric are dialects of Greek, though there may never have at any time been a separate language of which they were variations; so the various Romance languages, Italian, French, Spanish, &c., were dialects of Latin. Again, where there have existed side by side, as in England, various branches of a language, such as the languages of the Angles, the Jutes or the Saxons, and the descendant of one particular language, from many causes, has obtained the predominance, the traces of the other languages remain in the "dialects" of the districts where once the original language prevailed. Thus it may be incorrect, from the historical point of view, to say that "dialect" varieties of a language represent degradations of the standard language. A "literary" accepted language, such as modern English, represents the original language spoken in the Midlands, with accretions 2 of Norman, French, and later literary and scientific additions from classical and other sources, while the present-day "dialects" preserve, in inflections, pronunciation and particular words, traces of the original variety of the language not incorporated in the standard language of the country. See the various articles on languages (English, French, &c.).

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Simple English

A dialect is a type of language spoken by a group of people. Sometimes people who live in the same place make a dialect. Sometimes people who are similar in some way make a dialect.

There is no agreed difference between a dialect and a language. Some dialects are called "languages". They may spell words differently and be known as a language (for example, English is a Germanic dialect).

Other dialects are different types of a language that come from different places or countries (for example, British English and American English are dialects of English).

Differences in dialects can be found:

  • in different words (for example, people who speak British English may go to church and people who speak Scottish English may go to kirk);
  • in different pronunciations. Words are written the same way, but are pronounced differently by different speakers.
  • in different grammar (for example, some people who speak English may say "I dived", and others may say "I dove")


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